Children orphaned by COVID-19 facing uncertain future in India

Children wearing face masks as a precaution against the coronavirus attend online classes at a slum on the outskirts of Jammu, India, Monday, June 14, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 15 June 2021

Children orphaned by COVID-19 facing uncertain future in India

  • Officials, NGOs warn thousands of vulnerable to exploitation, neglect

NEW DELHI: Despite Indian government assurances to provide free food and education to children orphaned by the COVID-19 pandemic across the country, a majority continue to face an uncertain future after losing one or both parents amid the second wave of the pandemic.

In a recent report, the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) said that 3,621 ophans had lost both parents to the disease, while more than 26,000 had lost one parent.

“We are still in the process of compiling data, but looking at the initial figure, it looks grim,” an NCPCR official told Arab News.

“The challenge is to reach out to them and extend all support,” he added.

Shainza Sadat, 12, lost her mother to COVID-19 in the third week of April in the capital city, New Delhi, after her family failed to find hospital bed space.

“Life is difficult now in my mother’s absence,” Sadat told Arab News, adding: “Everything is established. Our main support system has gone.”

Her father Anwar said that since his wife’s death, “the family was without an anchor.”

He added: “The pandemic has jolted us. It’s not easy to raise a 12-year-old daughter single-handedly without her mother’s support.”

The second wave of the pandemic across India earlier this year claimed more than 300,000 lives and wreaked havoc across towns and villages in the country of 1.3 billion people.

After losing their father to COVID-19 late last year, Shatrudhan Kumar, 13, and his seven-year-old brother, from the Jehanabad district in the eastern state of Bihar, also lost their mother to the disease in April.

BACKGROUND

The Bihar government has registered 48 cases of children losing both parents and 1,400 cases of single parent deaths to COVID-19.

“I want to study, but now it’s a challenge to live without any support,” Kumar told Arab News.

“We are living with our relatives, but how long can we depend on them?”

The Bihar government has registered 48 cases of children losing both parents and 1,400 cases of single parent deaths to COVID-19.

“We are providing RS1,500 ($20) per month to each child who has lost their parents besides free education and free rations for the family,” Raj Kumar, director of Bihar’s social work department, told Arab News.

He added that a “widow is also getting $6 every month and free rations for the family.”

However, Bihar-based child rights NGO center, DIRECT, questioned the figures claimed by the government, and is now seeking “higher compensation for the victims.”

“I believe the figure of the children without a single parent or any parents must be double of what the government is saying,” Suresh Kumar, director of the NGO, told Arab News.

“The situation is bleak in rural areas. There are children whose parents have died due to COVID-19, but they don’t have proof to show that they lost their parents to the virus,” Kumar said, adding: “As a result, they are not getting the benefits announced by the government.”

On May 29, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced welfare measures for children who had lost their parents to COVID-19. Part of the measures requires the government to take care of children’s education, with a $14,000 corpus created for each child, which they can avail after turning 23.

However, officials and NGOs worry that children left without parents now face the double threat of neglect and vulnerability to exploitation and human trafficking.

Sonal Kapoor of NGO Protsahan, based in the capital, questioned the narrative of supporting “orphans of the pandemic” while “ignoring the larger question.”

According to Kapoor, who works for vulnerable children facing rights violations, an overwhelming majority of orphaned children are being forced into child labor.

“Among the children in distress cases that have erupted and we are working to support, fewer than 5 percent are children who have lost parents, but the remaining 95 percent are facing severe cases of child labor, child hunger and even sexual exploitation within families,” Kapoor told Arab News.

“In the last three months, the 48 slum communities where we work in Delhi have seen an escalation in cases of child labor and using children — both girls and boys — for transactional sex by parents in exchange for food,” she said, adding: “Children have been pushed into child labor to supplement their family income and there is no saying if they will go back to school even if the pandemic ends.”

Kapoor said that adoption or institutional support was not a feasible option, as India’s adoption rate is low, with just 3,351 children being adopted last year despite thousands being orphaned.

“Every orphan child does not have to end up in a child care institute. A simple semblance of extended family with limited resources is any day better than life for a child in a shelter home,” Kapoor added.

Citing an example of two children who had lost both their parents to COVID-19 last month, Kapoor said that they were left in the care of elderly grandparents, where “the poor grandmother is working overtime to meet the requirements of the teens.

“As an NGO, we support such families so that children grow under the patronage of their kith and kin,” she said.


South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly

Updated 27 September 2021

South Korea to vaccinate 12 to 17 year-olds, give boosters to elderly

  • South Korea scrambled over the weekend to contain a surge in COVID-19 cases
  • Over 91 percent of the people aged 60 and above have so far received at least one dose

SEOUL: South Korea said on Monday it would begin inoculations next month for children aged 12 to 17 and offer COVID-19 vaccine booster shots to those 75 years and above as the country starts to transition to normalcy by the end of October.
South Korea, which has been battling a fourth wave of infections since early July, scrambled over the weekend to contain a surge in cases. Infections topped 3,000 for the first time fueled by last week’s public holidays.
The vaccination advisory committee of the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) has ruled that the benefits outweigh the risks in vaccinating children. However, parents who have healthy children, such as those who do not have underlying conditions, are advised to weigh the relative benefits in making their decision, KDCA Director Jeong Eun-kyeong told a news conference on Monday.
While approving vaccinations for 12 to 17 year-olds, who will be given Pfizer shots, the panel and the government had not mandated that all children should take the shot.
The United States had by August vaccinated 50 percent of 12-17 year-olds and some European and Asian countries, including Germany and the Philippines have also been recommending vaccines for the age group.
Jeong said the initial booster doses from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna will go to those with weakened immune systems or deemed to be at high risk — the elderly, nursing home patients and staff.
The country aims to boost vaccination and fully immunize 90 percent of those aged 60 and older, and 80 percent of 18 to 59 years-old by the end of October.
Over 91 percent of the people aged 60 and above have so far received at least one dose, and vaccinations are under way for those 18 and above, 86.3 percent of whom have already had the first shot.
South Korea has reported 2,383 new coronavirus cases for Sunday, bringing total infections to 303,553, with 2,456 deaths.
Despite the high daily case numbers, the country has kept its mortality rate and severe COVID-19 cases relatively low and steady at 0.81 percent and 319, respectively, as of Sunday.
Some 74.2 percent of its 52 million population have had at least one dose of a vaccine through Sunday, and more than 45 percent are fully vaccinated.


India’s farmers renew protests, call for nationwide strike

Updated 27 September 2021

India’s farmers renew protests, call for nationwide strike

  • The drawn-out demonstrations have posed one of the biggest political challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • Police said some 500 protesters had been taken into custody, but added that the shutdown remained peaceful

NEW DELHI: Thousands of Indian farmers blocked traffic on major roads and railway tracks outside of the nation’s capital on Monday, marking one year of demonstrations against government-backed laws that they say will shatter their livelihoods.
The farmers have renewed their protests with calls for a nationwide strike on the anniversary of the legislation’s passage. The drawn-out demonstrations have posed one of the biggest political challenges to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept the polls for the second time in 2019.
Waving colorful flags and distributing free food, hundreds of farmers gathered at one of the protest sites on the edges of the capital, New Delhi. The mood on Monday was charged with determination to keep the protests going — some even brought mattresses with them, camping out as the day went on.
Along New Delhi’s southwest and eastern fringes, protesting farmers crowded highways, choking traffic and cutting off access from the capital to neighboring states. Police were deployed to three main protest sites on the outskirts of the city to maintain law and order.
A coalition of farmers’ unions — known as the Samyukta Kisan Morcha, or United Farmers’ Front — has called on shops, offices, factories and other institutions to shut their doors in solidarity for the 10-hour strike. All emergency services, including hospitals, pharmacies and relief work, will continue, they said.
The government has defended the legislation, saying it is necessary to modernize agriculture and that the laws will boost production through private investment. But the farmers say the new legislation will devastate their earnings by ending guaranteed pricing and force them to sell their crops to corporations at cheaper prices.
In neighboring Punjab and Haryana states — which are the country’s the two biggest agricultural producers — thousands of demonstrators also blocked highways, bringing traffic to a halt in some areas.
In the eastern state of Bihar, trains were halted as farmers squatted on railway tracks. Protesters also took to the streets, raising slogans against the Modi government, burning tires and blocking roads across the region. Police said some 500 protesters had been taken into custody, but added that the shutdown remained peaceful.
In the southern city of Bengaluru on Monday, hundreds of people marched in support of the protest against the government. In the southern state of Kerala, the ruling Left Democratic Front called for a total shutdown, reported local media.
Opposition parties in India, including the Congress Party, have supported the farmers. Senior leader Rahul Gandhi called the government “exploitative” and said he stood with farmers on Monday.
A number of talks between the government and farmers have failed to resolve the issue.
In November, the farmers escalated their movement by hunkering down on the outskirts of New Delhi, where they have camped out for nearly a year, pushing through a harsh winter as well as a coronavirus surge that devastated India earlier this year.
While the farmers’ protest movement has been largely peaceful, demonstrators in January broke through police barricades to storm the historic Red Fort in the capital’s center. Clashes with police left one protester dead and hundreds injured.


Afghan saffron boss says Taliban will not silence her

Updated 27 September 2021

Afghan saffron boss says Taliban will not silence her

  • The hard-liners have increasingly excluded women from public life since sweeping to power in mid-August
  • More than 1,000 women pick the brightly colored crocuses across the company’s 25 hectares of land

HERAT, Afghanistan: An Afghan business leader who employs hundreds of women on her saffron fields has vowed to speak up for the rights of her workers, and “not remain silent” under Taliban rule.
The hard-liners have increasingly excluded women from public life since sweeping to power in mid-August, pushing many female entrepreneurs to flee the country or go into hiding.
Many fear a return to their brutally oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001 when women were effectively banned from going to school or work, and only allowed to leave the house with a male relative.
“We will raise our voice so that it reaches their ears,” said Shafiqeh Attai, who started her saffron company in the western city of Herat in 2007.
“No matter what happens we won’t just sit at home, because we have worked very hard.”
Attai’s business, the Pashton Zarghon Saffron Women’s Company, produces, processes, packages and exports the world’s most expensive spice with an almost exclusively female workforce.
More than 1,000 women pick the brightly colored crocuses across the company’s 25 hectares (60 acres) of land in the Pashton Zarghon district of Herat Province, which borders Iran.
Another 55 hectares are independently owned and operate under the collective that Attai set up for women saffron pickers, who are represented by union leaders.
Employing women allows them to be breadwinners for their families, Attai said, enabling them to send their children to school, and to buy them clothing and other essentials.
“I worked hard to establish my business,” the 40-year-old said. “We don’t want to sit quietly and be ignored. Even if they ignore us, we will not remain silent.”
The ousted, Western-backed government encouraged farmers to grow the spice — used in dishes from biryani to paella — in a bid to wean them away from Afghanistan’s huge and problematic poppy industry.
Still, the country remains by far the world’s biggest producer of opium and heroin, supplying between 80 and 90 percent of global output.
During their previous stint in power, the Taliban — who used the sale of opium to fund their insurgency — destroyed much of the crop ostensibly to eradicate it, though critics said it was to drive up the value of their huge stockpiles.
The cultivation of poppies has again surged in recent years, as poverty and instability increased. Afghanistan’s production area is now roughly four times larger now than in 2002, according to the United Nations.
Herat Province produces the vast majority of Afghanistan’s saffron.
At more than $5,000 per kilogram, saffron is the world’s most expensive spice, and Attai’s company produces between 200 and 500 kilos each year.
The pistil of the flower has for centuries been used around the world in cooking, perfumes, medicines, tea and even as an aphrodisiac — and because of its high price has been dubbed “red gold” by those who rely on its cultivation.
Best grown in the baking hot sun, the bright purple saffron flowers are harvested in October and November by armies of workers, many of them women in their fifties and sixties, who start picking at dawn before the plants wilt later in the day.
Laborers then prise apart the delicate lilac leaves, vivid red stigmas and pale yellow stamens — painstaking work that demands concentration and skill.
Attai is concerned not just about the future of her business, but also for women across Afghanistan who are living in limbo, uncertain about jobs, education and representation in government.
“Now that the government of the Islamic Emirate is here we are very worried that they will block our work,” she said.
“They haven’t given girls the permission to go back to school and university, and they haven’t given any women posts in the government — I am worried about what will happen,” she added.
“I’m not just thinking about myself, I’m thinking about all those that this business supports to run their homes,” she said, noting that some of her employees are the sole breadwinners in their families.
“I am worried that 20 years of hard work by these women will go to waste.”
In the 20 years between the US-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and the Islamists’ return, many women became business leaders, particularly in cities like Herat.
Long a key commercial hub near Iran and Turkmenistan’s borders, the city has in recent months suffered from the flight of many businesswomen.
Younes Qazizadeh, head of the city’s chamber of commerce, said that he hoped the Taliban would make an official announcement to indicate that “women could come back and do business under this government as well.”
For now, the fate of businesses like Attai’s hangs on a thread.
“It is our hope to start women’s businesses again in our country,” Qazizadeh added.
Attai said that for now, she is staying in her homeland because she has “some hope” that her business can survive.
Ahead of the US pullout, a mammoth airlift saw 124,000 people evacuated from Kabul airport.
“I could have left as well. But I didn’t leave because all the hard work and effort that we put in should not be ignored,” Attai said.
“I don’t think they will block our work,” she added, referring to the Taliban.
“We are a company which is completely run by women and employs women — not a single man is brave enough to stop that. A woman who has shoveled her fields day and night cannot be ignored.”


New Zealand to allow home isolation to travelers

Updated 27 September 2021

New Zealand to allow home isolation to travelers

  • Currently New Zealanders have to quarantine in hotels for two weeks when they return home from abroad
  • New Zealand has taken an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus

WELLINGTON: New Zealand’s prime minister says the government will start a pilot program of home-isolation for overseas travelers, ahead of what she expects to be increasing vaccination levels.
Currently New Zealanders have to quarantine in hotels for two weeks when they return home from abroad.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday a pilot program that will allow New Zealanders to quarantine at home will include 150 business travelers who arrive between Oct. 30 and Dec. 8. The program will involve monitoring and testing.
“The only reason that we are running this self-isolation pilot now is in preparation for a highly vaccinated population,” Ardern said.
“The intention is that in the first quarter of 2022 when more New Zealanders are vaccinated, it will be safer to run self-isolation at home,” she added.
Of the eligible population in New Zealand aged 12 and older, 43 percent had been fully vaccinated, Ardern said.
In Auckland, the nation’s most populous city which has been locked down since Aug. 17 after the highly-contagious delta variant leaked from hotel quarantine, 82 percent of the eligible population had at least a single dose of the double-shot Pfizer vaccine, she said.
New Zealand has taken an unusual zero-tolerance approach to the coronavirus and has been trying to completely eliminate the Delta variant.


COVID-19 lockdown to ease more rapidly for the vaccinated in Sydney

Updated 27 September 2021

COVID-19 lockdown to ease more rapidly for the vaccinated in Sydney

  • Movement restrictions across New South Wales will be lifted gradually between Oct. 11 and Dec. 1
  • Victoria is expected to relax some curbs from Wednesday

SYDNEY: Australian authorities announced plans on Monday to gradually reopen locked-down Sydney, unveiling a two-tiered system that will give citizens inoculated for COVID-19 more freedoms than their unvaccinated neighbors for several weeks.
Movement restrictions across New South Wales, the country’s most populous state and home to Sydney, will be lifted gradually between Oct. 11 and Dec. 1 as vaccination rates push through 70 percent, 80 percent and 90 percent.
However, people who are not fully inoculated will not be allowed to join in renewed activities, like community sports, dining out and shopping, until the final date.
“It is very important to note that in unlike most cases in the world if you are not vaccinated you will have to wait at least four or five weeks ... in order to participate in things that the rest of us can participate in,” state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in a televised briefing.
“The message is if you want to be able to have a meal with friends and welcome people in your home, you have to get vaccinated.”
Berejiklian did not detail how the block on activity by the unvaccinated would be enforced.
Sydney, along with Melbourne and Canberra, has been in lockdown for several weeks, with the three cities bearing the brunt of a third wave of COVID-19 infections that has taken national case numbers to almost 100,000 — 68 percent recorded since mid-June.
At 1,245 deaths, the national fatality rate, however, has slowed due to higher vaccination levels among the most vulnerable.
The Delta-fueled outbreak has divided state and territory leaders, with some presiding over virus-free parts of the country indicating they will defy a federal government plan to reopen internal borders once the adult population reaches a 70-80 percent vaccination rate, expected toward the end of October.
In New South Wales, where around 60 percent of people aged 16 and over are fully inoculated, restaurants, pubs, retail stores, gyms and indoor recreation facilities will be allowed to reopen on Oct. 11 — days after the state is expected to reach 70 percent vaccination — with capacity limits.
Once 80 percent vaccination is achieved, expected a couple of weeks later, state-wide travel will be allowed. Limits on people attending funerals and weddings lifted, while retaining social distancing, and the number of vaccinated people allowed to gather in a home will double to 10.
From Dec. 1, there will be no limits on home gatherings and informal outdoor gatherings. Capacity limits will continue at indoor venues, but masks will no longer be required. Businesses will be allowed to impose their own rules requiring patrons be vaccinated after this date.
In neighboring Victoria, Premier Daniel Andrews refused to commit to a date that would ensure all citizens in his state, including the unvaccinated, would have significant freedoms before Christmas.
“I will say to people, just wait five weeks and you will have all the freedoms,” he said. “No, that is not a guarantee at all here. We have not made that decision.”
New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, home to Canberra, reported a total of just over 1,500 new COVID-19 cases on Monday — the vast bulk almost evenly split between Sydney and Melbourne.
The daily numbers have been tracking lower in recent weeks.
Victoria is expected to relax some curbs from Wednesday when the state’s first-dose vaccination rate is forecast to tick over 80 percent, while New South Wales on Monday allowed construction sites to return to full capacity and outdoor swimming pools to reopen with social distancing rules.